Israeli Court to Rule Whether Conscientious and Religious Draft Objectors Are Equal

A left-wing organization has requested the High Court to extend the conditions of military exemption granted to religious women to those objecting on moral grounds.

A female soldier in the women's living quarters at a military base in the Golan Heights, Israel, March 1, 2017.
NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

Yesh Gvul, a left-wing organization that supports conscientious objectors, filed a petition to the High Court of Justice on Thursday requesting that the conditions of military exemption granted to religious women be extended to those objecting to service on moral grounds.

The petition, filed by attorney Itay Mack, claims that “there are extreme differences in lenience for those who apply for exemptions on religious grounds and those who apply for reasons of moral objection.”

As such, the petitioners have requested the IDF’s chief of staff and the defense minister provide an explanation for the differences in procedure, and to justify why they have not annulled the necessity of those who request exemption on moral grounds to go before a committee.

Women who refuse to serve on religious grounds only have to declare that the extent of their observance, such as keeping kosher and not driving on the Sabbath, prevents them from being able to serve.

According to a High Court’s ruling, the military police are permitted to examine the young women’s claims if there arises any questionability as to the integrity of their declaration. 

The High Court may also hire a private investigator to watch the applicant during the time of her recruitment process.

It also happens on occasion that the army uses Facebook and other social media platforms in order to collect information that may bring into question the integrity of their claims. The request could be thrown into doubt, for example, if they were to find pictures of the applicant out shopping during the Sabbath, or dressed in a manner that does not reflect their purported level of religiosity.

In contrast, women or men who request an exemption on moral grounds are required to appear before a military committee made up of both military and academic representatives (such as Professor Avi Sagi, co-author of the IDF’s code of ethics), and must convince them to grant an exemption. 

The committee then spends a number of hours examining the objector who, in most cases, will only be seen after having been sent to a military jail for refusing to be recruited.

It is up to the committee to ascertain “the essence” of the refusal. They may, for example, ask whether the refusenik would be willing to serve in the army of another country, or would ever use a weapon. All members of the committee must accept the reasons for his or her refusal, and ascertain that it is not a refusal based on political reasons.

Just last week the committee that presides over these cases announced that Tamar Ze’evi, a 19-year-old conscientious objector from Jerusalem, will be exempted from her military service as her reasons for requesting an exemption were deemed to be in accordance with their requirements.

Interestingly, when Ze’evi was asked by the committee if she would be willing to enlist as part of the UN’s peacekeeping force in Africa in order to prevent the killing of civilians despite having to hold a weapon, she answered that though “it would be difficult for me to hold a weapon,” she would be able to live with that. 

The committee pressed her in an attempt to find out whether her opposition to violence was “primary,” or if it was a political decision. This is effectively what the committee's decisions depend on: whether the refusal is for political reasons, like opposition to the occupation, or because of an absolute opposition to violence.

In October a request was sent to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot requesting the annulment of the mandatory appearance before a committee as it discriminates against those requesting exemptions on grounds of conscience, compared to those who request on religious grounds. 

Major Noah Harpaz-Youz issued a response in January refusing the request, claiming that the manner in which an exemption is obtained for personal religious reasons cannot be compared to requesting an exemption for reasons of conscience.

In response to last week's petition, Justice Menachem Mazuz said that the Defense Ministry and the IDF have until the 1st of June to issue an official response.